Tonight's Sky
Sun
Sun
Moon
Moon
Mercury
Mercury
Venus
Venus
Mars
Mars
Jupiter
Jupiter
Saturn
Saturn

Tonight's Sky — Change location

OR

Searching...

Tonight's Sky — Select location

Tonight's Sky — Enter coordinates

° '
° '

Making sausage

It’s not personal. It’s science.
Hester_Jeff
Magazines like Astronomy do a wonderful job making neat science accessible to the public, but that’s not always such a great thing. Slick press releases and well-written articles about fun discoveries can make science look easy; it’s anything but.

I’m not talking about the difficulty of the subject matter itself, although the chasm between a popular article and the science it describes can be vast. I’m talking about the human experience of doing science, which can be brutal.

Some questions are matters of opinion. Yankees or Red Sox? Asparagus or green beans? Other questions are not. How many protons are in a carbon nucleus? Is the Moon made of green cheese? How did life begin?

There are answers to those questions that depend in absolutely no way, shape, or form on opinion or belief. We can stand on a hilltop and shout at the heavens, but the universe is never going to rearrange itself to suit our notions of how things ought to work. 

That’s where science comes in. 

If you learn nothing else from reading my column, at least learn this: Science is an intellectually violent activity! Scientific knowledge comes from destructively testing ideas. (See my column from November 2015, “Postmodernist airplanes.”) A scientist’s duty is to logically and honestly use all available evidence to try to tear ideas to shreds. If an idea can survive that gantlet, then it is worth holding onto, at least for now. But if it can’t survive, bye-bye. C’est la guerre!

Huh? What do you mean, “tear ideas to shreds?” What do you mean, “opinions and beliefs don’t matter?” That’s really harsh, man!

ASYJH0918
Pojoslaw/Dreamstime
Yep, it sure is. But that’s how the game is played. Airplanes fly, computers compute, and spacecraft navigate the solar system because when it really matters, those rules work better than any other rules humans have ever come up with.

Even so, living by those rules can suck. We humans often fall deeply in love with ideas and beliefs, present company included. That’s especially true when an idea or belief helps bind us to our social group, and it’s as true for scientists as it is for anyone else. Our shared values are built around discovering how the world works, and knowing that in a confrontation between opinion and evidence, evidence wins.

Instead of, “Run it up a flagpole and see who salutes,” science is more, “Run it up a flagpole and see if there is anything left after people finish shooting at it.” A scientist has to get used to the notion that when you share an idea, people respond by looking for reasons why you’re wrong. When they finish, they go back and look some more. Then a new generation comes along with new and better tools, and they have a go at you, too! 

Pulling punches is clearly a no-no. If scientists start going easy on ideas just to protect people’s feelings, airplanes start falling out of the sky.

I need to be careful with my wording here. It’s not that your peers have a go at you, personally. What they have a go at is the idea you love so much. If you want to survive science in one emotional piece, that’s an important distinction. It’s not personal. It’s science! I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone toe-to-toe with someone over a scientific disagreement, only to sit down later and drink a beer with the dear friend I just went 12 bloody rounds with.

This column invites readers to push aside the decorative curtain of packaged-for-the-public science, step into the kitchen, and see how the sausage is made. Sanitizing science or soft-pedaling its implications would defeat the whole purpose.

Things I write about can make some readers uncomfortable, but it’s not my intention to be snarky. I write about that stuff because it’s important. Intelligent design, for example, is a cause célèbre for groups that want to gut science education nationwide. Climate change is an existential issue facing human civilization. The anti-vaccine movement puts public health at serious risk. It would be irresponsible and frankly unfair to readers to sweep stuff like that under the rug.

All this applies to me, too, by the way. If you disagree with something that I say, show me evidence that falsifies testable predictions, and I’m all ears. But if something I say just gets someone’s hackles up, my answer will always be the same: The rules are the rules.

There you have it. Human exploration of the universe and of ourselves continues at an ever-accelerating pace, and what we are learning is as amazingly, mind-blowingly cool as it is profound. But there is no getting around letting the pieces fall where they may. That’s not personal. That’s science.

0

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Read and share your comments on this article
Comment on this article
Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of Astronomy.com are allowed to comment on this article. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
0 comments
ADVERTISEMENT

FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter. View our Privacy Policy.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Apollo_RightRail

Click here to receive a FREE e-Guide exclusively from Astronomy magazine.

Find us on Facebook